The sidewalks of San Francisco will become a battleground for billionaires this election season as a proposition on the ballot, Proposition Q, seeks to tackle the issue of homeless encampments. The measure is sponsored by Supervisor Mark Farrell and supported largely by venture capitalists William Oberndorf, Michael Moritz and Ron Conway according to campaign finance records obtained from the SF Ethics Commission.

Donations to Proposition Q

Oberndorf, a Mill Valley-based investor, spent more than $1.5 million this election cycle in support of Jeb Bush’s race to win the Republican nomination for president.

Moritz, a venture capitalist, drew public attention for his support for and $250,000 donation supporting a 2010 measure that sought to increase city employees’ payments into their generous pension funds.

Conway, an early investor of Google and PayPal, bankrolled $85,000 for Proposition L back in 2010 – a measure targeting the homeless which banned sitting or lying on sidewalks between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. His contributions to campaigns supported by Mayor Ed Lee are well documented. 

At one dollar short of $50,000 each, the three contributors account for more than 60 percent of all total funding for Measure Q.

Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, believes the measure is purely political. “You have people investing in a wedge issue to help give publicity to a politician like Mark Farrell, a candidate running an anti-homeless platform and planning on running for mayor in the future,” said Friedenbach.

“It’s a way to give money without making a direct contribution,” said Friedenbach. “It’s a political strategy and a gross one at that.”

While the investors did not return phone calls for comment, Farrell – who is currently suing the city over a $191,000 campaign finance fine by the Ethics Commission stemming from his 2010 run for Supervisor – argues that it’s high time to tackle the issue of the camps.

“When I was growing up in the city, homelessness was embodied by the panhandlers on Van Ness,” said Supervisor Farrell. “Over the last year and a half, it’s symbolized by the growing number of tent encampments.”

While few would disagree with that assessment – District 9 Supervisor David Campos recently said he would end the encampments in four months – those opposed to the measure argue that it politicizes the issue without offering any housing solutions. It is unclear why the billionaires chose to support this measure except that there is a generalized frustration about the homeless encampments and the shortage of housing.

The measure would give tent campers 24 hours to clear out. In his analysis of the measure, Ben Rosenfeld, the city’s controller found:

“The City would be required to offer housing or shelter, though the proposed ordinance does not specify the number of days of housing that must be offered. The City would also be required to offer homeless services, defined as a program (Homeward Bound) that pays for transportation to reunite individuals with family or friends outside of San Francisco.”

Last winter, the city’s attempt to clear encampments on Division Street resulted in tents springing up days after and blocks away. With no clear exits to long term housing, the encampment residents were forced to pick up and move, but were offered no permanent destination.

Proposition Q is unspecific in its definition of housing except for the mention of “Navigation Centers, ” which are temporary-stay facilities designed to accelerate access to long term housing. The program has proven successful in providing services to former tent encampment residents, but it remains unclear if the 18-month old program can be sufficiently scaled up.

With six new transitional housing facilities approved to be built over the next two years, the capacity of the Navigation Center program could expand to nearly 900 beds in the next two years – still far fewer than the estimated 3,500 people who the city controller estimates spend their nights on the streets.

Supervisor Farrell believes the measure will force the city to have adequate accommodations for campers this time around.

Merely expanding the capacity of these centers won’t work without a significant increase in housing exits, others have argued.

“Increasing bed capacity without a concurrent increase in the number of available permanent exits would undermine the Navigation Center’s ability to rapidly house its clients,” said the December 2015 report by the SF Controller’s Office. “Absent an increase in the number of subsidized housing units, permanent exits will begin to take longer and become more difficult to achieve.”

According to the end of the year report, one  Navigation Center can house about 122 clients annually. It would take more than 1,100 supportive-housing units per year solely dedicated to Navigation Center exits to generate enough vacancies for those clients, the report found, because only about 1 in 10 permanent supportive-housing units become vacant each year.

The report also states that prioritizing housing for Navigation Center clients would make it difficult for others seeking the same units through other points of access.

While the city has provided 1,600 direct homeless exits through city programs this year, an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle revealed it would take a far more concerted effort to solve chronic homelessness.

“Pulling every hard-core homeless person off the streets of San Francisco would require the creation within two years of 2,500 additional supportive housing units,” the Chronicle noted. This would take “$200 million up front to build new apartments, and about $50 million annually to operate those and other added units.”

Supervisor Farrell said the measure is a policy initiative, not a funding mechanism for additional housing. Opponents argue that the language around the bill is misleading, and the omission of new housing exits is cause for apprehension.

“It’s one of those wedge issues” said Kelley Cutler of the Coalition on Homelessness. “When it initially went on the ballot it set off alarms everywhere.”

Cutler, who has been working with homeless communities for more than 15 years, echoed the sentiment among homeless advocates that the measure is a political ploy.

“We met with Supervisor Farrell a week and half before he put it on the ballot, he never mentioned this legislation to us,” said Cutler “If they wanted real legislation, they should’ve talked to actual service providers. That didn’t happen.”

Cutler, who worked with Bevan Dufty’s office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, or HOPE, has spent a lot of time with people in encampments, and believes that the bill distracts from the larger issues.

“We’d rather be working on the solutions instead of debating why this ballot measure is bad,” said Cutler. “First off, nobody is advocating for tents or encampments, we’re advocating for real solutions.”

Jeff Kositsky, handpicked by Mayor Lee to head the brand new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said his department was disheartened by Farrell’s initiative.

“I told my staff, ‘let’s not worry what happens under that dome’,” said Kositsky. “Every election cycle homeless people are used as red capes. When we politicize this issue, it makes it very hard to solve.”